Most of your work communications are probably over email. You likely email your colleagues and clients more frequently than you speak to them on the phone or meet with them in person.
Unlike face-to-face communication, it can be more difficult to effectively convey important aspects of your personality, attitudes, and style in email.
Is there a connection between our email persona and our real-life persona? How competently can the average person infer our personality from our emails? The answer comes in four points:
People use language in different ways, and those differences are a function of their personality. Our choices are spontaneous and unconscious but they do reflect who we are. Text mining studies have found associations between key words and major aspects of personality. The more frequently people use those words, the more likely it is that they display certain personality traits.
For example, extraverts talk about fun-related stuff: bars, Miami, music, party, and drinks. People with lower EQ are more likely to use emotional and negative words: stress, depressed, angry, and unfortunate. Narcissists talk about themselves—the number of self-referential words (e.g., "I," "me," "mine," "myself," etc.) is indicative of someone’s self-love and entitlement. Artistic and intellectual individuals use highbrow words, such as narrative, rhetoric, and leitmotiv.
There is also huge variability in people’s communicational style, even when the words may not differ that much. For instance, absence of typos is a sign of conscientiousness, perfectionism, and obsessionality. Poor grammar reflects lower levels of IQ and academic intelligence. Emoticons are a sign of friendliness (if the email is informal) or immaturity (in work-related emails).
Long emails reflect energy and thoroughness, but also some degree of neediness and disorganization. Chaotic emails are a sign of creativity or psychopathic tendencies. Instant responses reflect impulsivity and low self-control. Late responses are a sign of disinterest, and no responses signal passive-aggressive disdain.
Even when emails do reflect our personality, human observers may fail to interpret the cues. This tends to occur for two main reasons: they are either not paying sufficient attention (focusing instead on what they want to say), or over-interpreting things.
Importantly, correct interpretations require paying attention to contextual factors, such as awareness of the sender’s main motivation, and distilling the signal from the noise. It is also important to determine whether cues are truly related to senders’ personality or transient mood and behaviors.
The bottom line is that even the most intuitive observer of email behaviors may fail to perform as well as a computer-generated algorithm, especially if they have never had physical interactions with the sender or lack any background information on them. Of course, this does not stop people from making inferences. Human beings are prewired to make instant and unconscious evaluations of people, and we tend to disregard information that is not congruent with our initial prejudices—this is why stereotypes are so pervasive, and that goes for the email world, too.
Online trust is the backbone of a huge economy: we wouldn’t have eBay, Uber, Tinder, or Airbnb unless we were open to the idea of trusting strangers simply based on their digital footprint or crowdsourced reputation. Yet going beyond superficial relations with others still requires face-to-face interactions—and it probably always will. This is why our impressions of others are rarely the same in the digital as in the physical world: even phone conversations omit key information about individuals’ personalities.
Ultimately, chemistry cannot be translated into data. And unlike computers, humans are more trusting when they can make decisions on the basis of their intuition, rather than pure data. Perhaps this is the main explanation for the fact that face-to-face meetings are far from extinction. Video technology is popular, but only because it has replaced phone conversations, rather than physical meetings.
—Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling, consumer analytics, and talent management. He is a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London (UCL), Vice President of Research and Innovation at Hogan Assessments, and has previously taught at New York University and the London School of Economics.